Boys on the Side
It's not often that I take issue with a dramaturg. Dramaturgy is a smallish and underdefined theatrical task anyway. In the best of worlds, these nitpickers peer over the shoulders of playwrights and directors, relentlessly pressing them to clarify the story and the script. But most theater companies make do without anyone filling the position, or set their unhappy dramaturg to the task of making a lobby display out of poster board and newspaper clippings. It would be unbecoming to pick a fight with the fellow responsible for the theatrical equivalent of a grade-school bulletin-board project.
But the dramaturg here is Michael Bigelow Dixon, and he is also the literary manager of the Guthrie Theater. The play in question is Good Boys at the Guthrie Lab, a world debut by pseudonymous playwright Jane Martin, here directed by Jon Jory--who may, in fact, be Jane Martin. Whoever she is, the playwright was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for Keely and Du, which debuted in 1993 at the Humana Festival. For those who don't know, this is an annual showcase of new plays put on by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. And, by the way, Jon Jory was the producing director at the Actors Theatre of Louisville for 31 years. Oh, and also by the way, Michael Bigelow Dixon was the literary manager at the ATC, and co-edited ten volumes of plays and related criticism connected to the festival. So no lobby displays for Dixon. When he has a comment to offer on Good Boys, one imagines it is taken seriously.
Martin's new play is set on two park benches, buried in the thick of some overgrown Florida park, where two fathers sit and glare at each other. The first, played by Glynn Turman with a ragged voice and a disarming smile, is a middle-aged preacher whose life has been on a slow slide since his eldest son was murdered in a school shooting. The other man, played by Stephen Yoakam with haunted, grim mannerisms, fathered the boy responsible for the shooting, who then turned the pistol on himself.
It's a short script: The play runs about an hour and a half without intermission. And this is where I take issue with Dixon, who, as dramaturg and literary manager, might have suggested a much-needed edit. This play should be shorter, even if what is left is simply an elongated one-act. Good Boys is three-quarters a magnificent play, and one-quarter utter nonsense, and that superfluous quarter should have been excised.
The scenes between the two fathers are terrific, owing only in part to the talent of the two actors. Turman knows something of this subject, having lost a son of his own in a parking-lot stabbing. (It may be no coincidence that his character's last name is Thurman; Jory specifically asked the actor to play the role.) He brings a quality of pained restraint to his character, who has hunted down the father of his son's killer, long after the shooting. Yoakam plays a broken man, and his distinguishing feature is his exhaustion. His character has sunk into temporary anonymity as an alcoholic and part-time used-car salesman. Yoakam's eyes are heavy-lidded, his movements slow and fatigued, his manner drained and apologetic. He is not certain what Thurman wants, even as the man peppers him with difficult questions.
Both men are groping toward some sort of understanding, and with that, redemption, and these scenes are immensely compelling. But Martin has fleshed out these exchanges with flashbacks, sometimes in monologue form, of the last days of the two boys. Both actors--Casey Greig and Marlon Morrison--are fine, but the scenes are underwritten. Greig's character, the shooter, is glib and unremarkable, a jumpy teenager in a rodeo shirt and kimono. He tinkers with pipe bombs and mocks football players, including Morrison's character, but is otherwise a cipher. Sometimes, by contrast, the flashbacks tell us too much. An intriguing subtext of racism--the shooter is white, his victim black--becomes moot, given some of Greig's dialogue.
These scenes need not have been dramatized--especially as they're dramatized badly here. In one instance, the play flashes back to a brief cell-phone conversation between father and son in the midst of the shooting. Greig appears at the back of this play's boxy, terrarium-like set, armed with pistols and shotgun, as Yoakam, from the park bench, begs for an explanation. "It's not your fault," Greig says, and then hangs up and wanders offstage. The moment is meant to be pregnant, with the grisly past thrusting itself into the present. But this awkward scene feels out of place: Greig doesn't seem like some murderous child stalking the halls of his high school; he seems like a young man playing soldier in a Florida park.
Scenes such as these are abrupt and redundant--especially since the two fathers already convey much of their information in vivid fashion. It would have been enough to tell of two men on separate park benches, cautiously working through a shared tragedy.
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